Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Green Light Letter & The Dawn Of Night Baseball

According to Census data, roughly 16.1 million Americans served in World War II. The entire population of the US at the time President Roosevelt passed the Selective Training and Service Act was about 133 million, meaning that better than 12 percent of the country aided with some part of the war. Which means that almost a quarter of males of any age were enlisted and a much, much higher portion of those who were able-bodied served the country.

This is a way of saying that the 500 major league and approximately 5,000 minor league baseball players that put their lives on hold to join the Armed Forces were only a small part of a much larger event. World War II occurred on such a grandiose scale and altered the industries in our country so dramatically, that it's difficult even to imagine for someone my age who has only lived through the Gulf War and recent conflicts in Iraq in Afghanistan.

Now, we selfishly couldn't accept our favorite athletes going to war, and because of the current nature of international conflict of the level of weapons technology, we don't have to imagine ourselves shipping out hostile areas on the other side of the Earth unless we choose to. During World War II, kids probably dreamed of being drafted into the Army and fighting the Nazis or in the Pacific. Now it's more likely they go to sleep thinking about being drafted by their favorite sports franchise and fighting against their opposition.

The one document that inextricably links baseball and World War II was the "Green Light Letter" sent from President Roosevelt to Commisioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. It was a response to this letter to the President written by Landis, asking if baseball should continue to operate during the war. It's hard to imagine now, but it was a very serious question at the time as World War I shortened the 1918 Major League schedule and the 1919 season might not have been played at all if not for the Armistice that today celebrates.

The draft was certain to significantly drain the talent pool, but baseball provided employment and entertainment fair beyond just the players. In his response to Landis, FDR gave his blessings for baseball to continue, saying in part:
I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before.

And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.

Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half, and which can be got for very little cost. And, incidentally, I hope that night games can be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally.
This last sentence gave way to the increased popularity of night games, although it still had to be settled between the owners and Landis. Some owners, like Clark Griffith, who controlled the Washington Senators, saw night games as a tremendous opportunity to open the game up to a new market. On the other hand, Ed Barrow who was then an executive for the Yankees opposed the measure out of a concern for security. He cautioned:
If I were a club president, I would not want the responsibility of luring enemy planes with a brightly lighted park too many nights a week.
Thankfully, Griffith turned out to be right and Barrow looks paranoid in hindsight.

Perhaps it would have happened eventually, but Roosevelt's nudge towards moving the games to a time when they would be more accessible to fans was a major step forward along baseball's trip to becoming as popular and profitable as it is today.


  1. This was an outstanding little story, and perfectly appropriate for Veteran's Day. It really puts things into perspective when you get the President's own words weighing in on the importance of baseball during the world's most desperate time.

    When people wonder why baseball is the national pastime, this anecdote is a perfect response to cite as a reason why.

    Nice work.

  2. Awesome post. Can you imagine Bud Selig writing to Obama to inquire if what he is doing is in the best interest of the country?
    There is one modern day example of a pro athlete going off to war that I can think of: Pat Tillman.